Friday, May 12, 2017

My Top 10 Russian Novels...and One Memoir


Here's something light to kick off your weekend. Social media is all about lists these days, so thought I would get on the bandwagon and share mine.

A friend from my childhood in West Philadelphia, Alex Kudera, kindly asked me to make this list recently. I'm not an expert in Russian Literature or Language; I had a crush on a stupid Russian guy at age 19 and was good at languages. Hence, my Russian major! Alex is a professor of English literature who has taught students in China, Ohio, South Carolina, and right here in Philadelphia. He has a more sophisticated blog than this one that you may want to check out. Ahem:

1. Anna Karenina (Lev Tolstoy, 1873 to 1877). Anna is rich and bored. Anna hates the way her husband chews his food. Count Vronsky—played by Christopher Reeve, so handsome—sweeps Anna off her feet! But things do not end well for Anna.

2. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880). Not about a traveling circus acrobatic troupe. Its sweeping explorations of God, free agency, and morality are timeless and haunting. My favorite part is Ivan’s reciting of the poem “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ is resurrected during the Spanish Inquisition.

3. Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky, 1866). Life-long graduate student Rodion Raskolnikov tries to justify an unspeakably immoral act with eugenics and hey—a guy needs to eat.

4. Rudin (Ivan Turgenev, 1856). Dmitry Rudin talks the talk, but boy does he not walk the walk. Or is it talks the walk? Either way, he fails to get laid.

5. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Vladimir Voinovich, 1969). A peasant drafted into the Red Army is forgotten by his unit in a remote village (every Russian village is remote, natch) because he’s just not that memorable. The fellow takes care of a garden instead. Slapstick hilarity ensues.

6. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1962). Life in a Soviet prison labor camp is not as fun as you think it is.

7. Moscow 2042 (Vladimir Voinovich, 1986). A utopian-dystopian future in which Moscow becomes the communist epicenter of Russia. Like Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Voinovich has called his novel “prophetic.”

8. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir (Nadezhda Mandelstam, 1970). Not a novel, but personal memoir forms the backbone of modern Russian lit, in my opinion. The wife of exiled poet Osip Mandelstam details the unthinkable hardships she and her family endured during the Stalinist era.

9. Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev, 1862). Like A River Runs Through It, but without the boring fly fishing, Brad Pitt, and Robert Redford’s droning voiceover. All the cool kids are embracing nihilism, but Pavel Kirsanov is having none of it.

10. War and Peace (Lev Tolstoy, 1869). Has anyone actually finished this book? I have not. Napoleon invades Russia. Beyond that, I have no more to say. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Editing My Husband

Several months ago, I was sitting at my desk, texting back and forth with my husband about the usual, mundane details of our lives: So you’re going to Korea for two weeks when? And you have a client dinner Tuesday and won’t be home until after midnight? Boring stuff. Then, just as I turned my attention to actual work, my iPhone pinged again. I read the new text, which seemed slightly out of place compared to the previous thread:

I’m looking for a relationship with someone that is independent, smart, hard working like me and is adventurous. We work hard but carve out time for amazing dates a couple of times per month at minimum. Travel the world, learn new things, eat great food and drink great wine, experiment and thoroughly enjoy our time. Ideally monogamous but that’s not a deal breaker since it’s tough when long distance. But definitely devoted to each other’s happiness.

Holy crap. My stomach sank. My husband just wrote a personals ad and sent it to me by mistake! Perhaps he plans to kill me and has crafted the ad in anticipation of my mysterious absence, à la Forensic Files? I’ve seen enough true crime television to know how this works.

I cried a little. I felt like throwing up, a little. But after that, I was MAD. The woman he described in the ad did not sound like me. She could be my foil; Aisha-like, but different enough to be superior to the present me. Aisha 2.0. She represented the younger, hotter version of me, the woman who likes hang-gliding while wearing roller blades as she sips a glass of fine petite Syrah that she and her paramour just happened to stumble upon in South Africa as they toured the wine country on horseback. Bareback. You know what? This woman sounds insufferable. How accommodating of him to take monogamy off the table; if you were married to her, though, I suspect infidelity may indeed constitute “a deal breaker.”

After dabbing at my semi-smeared mascara with a balled-up Kleenex, I texted the husband once more to inquire about the origins of the mysterious text, whose provenance I had already uncovered thanks to my superior sleuthing abilities. “Oh,” he responded offhandedly, “that wasn’t meant for you. I was writing to a friend who needed my advice.” I wanted to flesh his response out. Is this what he really wants in a partner? But he was boarding a plane and had to hang up. “We’ll talk later,” he dashed off. And that was that.

My husband does not lie, so part of me was relieved to discover the truth. However, his description reflected his real feelings. The fact remained that the woman he described does not fully reflect my personality or interests.

I am an editor by trade. It’s only natural, then, that I would take pen in hand (or Track Changes) and annotate the husband’s description to render it more realistic:

I’m looking for a relationship with someone that (you mean “who”) is independent, smart, hard working[hard-working] like me, and mostly adventurous except when it comes to flying in small-engine planes, swimming in the ocean where sharks are, going up to the top of buildings taller than 25 stories, and riding roller coasters. We work hard but carve out time for pretty good dates a couple of times per month at minimum—who are we kidding! We have two kids and are too exhausted to go out. Travel the world (being careful to avoid the aforementioned scary parts), learn new things (Rick Steves on PBS or reading the Lonely Planet series is good enough sometimes), eat great food (as long as it does not have eyes, smell bad, or requires entering a yurt) and drink great wine (I don’t drink alcohol), experiment and thoroughly enjoy our time. But definitely devoted to each other’s happiness after fulfilling the million other obligations to which we are each committed.

I am essentially the same person you met 15 years ago. Often, however, we live separate lives under the same roof. Making time to have fun independent of our kids is mostly impossible. I can’t travel alone you anymore, because what if we die? Who the heck is going to take care of Oscar, our Jack Russell? Sometimes, the only glue holding us together is that we are always able to laugh at whatever crap is going down, even when we are both grouchy and tired. Your personals ad is a nostalgic ode. I miss all the great stuff that childless couples get to enjoy, too, like brunch, morning sex, and uninterrupted conversations.

However, my life now is pretty awesome, in its own way, in spite of the constant juggling of schedules and lonely nights. Our kids and dog are infuriating and delightful all at once. We are relatively healthy. Our car is paid for.

As for the “ideal” woman you described? Forget about her. She’s sitting in a bar somewhere in Key West doing tequila shots. In a couple of hours, the cops will arrest her for public urination. Also, she has herpes. I’m fairly confident you are better off without her.